In my last blog, I mentioned Devotional Classics, a Renovaré resource, and encouraged readers to mine the book for the riches it contains. In the first sentence of the book, Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith write this: We today suffer from the unexamined notion that the more recent something is, the better, the more true it must be. This book is our attempt to counter this present-day myopia.”

I can see Tom Oden smiling and nodding his head in agreement with Richard and Jim. For, as we have seen in my series of blogs on Tom’s thinking and life, Tom was firmly convinced that if we only read modern books, our understanding of God, human life, and God’s purposes in history will be small, malnourished, and, indeed, myopic. 

It is time to say good-bye to Tom — if only for a time — and turn to the authors, books, and ideas that have nourished Christians for thousands of years, as they did Tom. Devotional Classics will be one of the resources I will draw on as I blog, and if you’re unfamiliar with this book, I encourage you to add it to your library. Richard and Jim have wisely chosen fifty-two selections and grouped them under the six streams that Richard discusses in detail in his book Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith, published by HarperSanFrancisco in 1998

After initial readings in an introductory section titled Preparing for the Spiritual Life,” Devotional Classics contains six sections of readings grouped under the six streams or traditions Richard discusses in Streams of Living Water: The Contemplative Tradition, The Holiness Tradition, The Charismatic Tradition, The Social Tradition, The Evangelical Tradition, and The Incarnational Tradition. We will swim in these streams in coming blogs. 

Why read old books? C.S. Lewis presents a helpful perspective in answering this question. First, Lewis is determined to debunk the idea that old books are by definition boring, dense and irrelevant to modern concerns. The great thinkers and writers remain in print, Lewis argues, precisely because they are much more accessible and interesting than the mound of secondary literature most students rely on to learn of them. Lewis does not scold his students for turning to secondary literature, knowing they are often intimidated by the great thinkers. 

The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator … It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” 

Second, precisely because modern Christian writers and readers inhabit the contemporary world, they will see clearly on certain issues but much less so on others. If, for example, I have always lived in a sexually overheated society, one in which sexual insanity is viewed as normal and healthy, might I not need to step outside that society and time to gain new insights, understandings, and wisdom? 

Or, if I have grown up in a materialistic, self-indulgent culture, I might well fail to see how material self-indulgence can blind me to Christ’s call to self-sacrifice and self-denial. Reading Christian authors who lived in other times and locales helps to provide a buffer against the self-delusions and blindness any culture generates within its inhabitants toward certain aspects of the gospel. 

It is possible, indeed probable, that there are elements of the gospel or aspects of human sin and error I can identify and understand clearly only by stepping outside my historical, cultural, political, or linguistic environment. In the words of Lewis, Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”